So often it happens that a new leader puts together a band for a debut recording, then proceeds to use the band mainly as a backdrop for the artist's string of virtuosic solos. Not so with Nick Rolfe’s debut as a leader. Here the ensemble's tight knit work plays as important a role in the success of the recording as the pianist's accomplished playing. This remarkable sense of restraint is a tribute to Rolfe’s confidence as a leader, confidence that comes from years of listening, study and just plain hard work.
Born in Philadelphia, Nick Rolfe grew up mostly in Washington State. He began studying piano at age six, playing mostly classical and pop music. But as is often the case with musicians who grew up after the 50s, Nick's parents’ record collection also played a part in his musical development. In addition to listening to records by the Modern Jazz Quartet and Thelonious Monk, Nick can also remember pretending to play the piano along with the family's boogie woogie records.
Piano, however, was not so much a love as a commitment and, as Nick entered his high school years, his attention turned away from music and toward sports and socializing. Says Rolfe: “My parents always made me practice before I was allowed to do anything else. So as soon as the choice to practice piano was left up to me, I left it.”
Fortunately, as Rolfe describes it, “The music called me back,” and at 22 he enrolled in Washington's leading music school, Cornish College of the Arts. There the young pianist promptly met two musicians who were to become major influences in his life: trombonist Julian Priester and saxophonist Hadley Caliman. “They really opened my eyes to how deep a music jazz is,” Nick explains. “They also convinced me I had a talent that I should pursue seriously.” But taking these master musicians’ advice was a humbling experience as well, says Nick: “I thought I had my thing together, but they let me know in no uncertain terms that I didn't have anything together.”
After two years at Cornish, Rolfe headed for New York, finished his degree in jazz performance at the New School and began the climb toward life as a full time jazz musician. After spending most of the 1990's, touring and recording with such jazz icons as Reggie Workman, Benny Golson and Buster Williams, we are treated to the 30-year-old’s debut as a leader, “The Persuader.”
Throughout its dozen tracks, “The Persuader” clearly demonstrates Rolfe’s alluring piano work and his enthusiasm for composing and arranging. Take the opener, “A Batch For Bo Noody,” for example. A simple two note chord ignites this infectious romp, played by the entire ensemble, including the front line of Don Braden’s tenor, Bruce Williams’s alto and Steve Turre’s trombone. Turre contributes a mighty solo, followed by the pianist, whose solo makes some unexpected turns of Latin origin.
Rolfe has assembled a nice mix of material, mixing several originals with standards from Duke Ellington, Benny Golson and others. “I feel that as a new leader, I need to pay tribute to certain people who came before,” says Rolfe, commenting on his choice of Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol’s classic “Caravan.” In addition, Nick says, his rendition was influenced by Art Blakey’s arrangement - another legendary leader to whom homage is due from any young jazz musician.
The other Ellington composition Rolfe chose to include, “In a Sentimental Mood,” is for him, “the most beautiful ballad ever.” In fact, its inclusion on this recording was completely unplanned, and came about during the session at the urging of producer and drummer Cecil Brooks III. “Cecil suggested that I do a duet with Richie (Goods, the group's bassist). So we just started playing the ballad, and everything fell into place. What you hear on the CD was our first take.”
As revealing and wonderful as the playing throughout this disc is, its heart belongs to the two part suite Nick wrote in memory of his late mother, “Maryann.” The first part, “Requiem,” features Nick alone at the piano, pouring out his feelings for his mother through his emotive keyboard work. “My mother was sick for quite a while leading up to her death,” says Nick, “and I wanted ‘Requiem’ to be as expressive as I could make it. It's me saying everything I ever wanted to tell my mother.”
The concluding part, “Celebration,” is played by a quartet of piano, drums, bass and saxophone. Again, the pianist strove to have the music reflect its subject: “My mother was a little woman, but a very strong, very active woman in the community,” explains Nick. “She helped South African artists show their work in the U. S. She was very active with the homeless and on .‘Celebration’ I needed to be as powerful as she was. I didn't want it to be hard hitting, but I did want to depict her heart, her drive, her willingness to give her all.” “Celebration” accomplishes its composer's goal through a series of builds and releases, led by Don Braden’s affecting soprano playing.
As you listen to “The Persuader,” enjoy its surprises, range of emotions, and predictions of Nick Rolfe’s continuing success as a leader. Though he's accomplished much thus far in his career, the pianist quickly acknowledges that he has a long road of hard work ahead. Despite all he's learned, he says, “I've still got 8 billion things to work on.” Maryann would be proud.
--From album notes by Bill McDonough - writer of the monthly “Radioactive” column for Jazziz and jazz reviewer for National Public Radio's